Kinect User Interaction Design

I don’t own a Kinect or an Xbox 360 (and I don’t intend to buy either), but I’ve recently read very interesting stuff about the user interaction design issues it has raised, even for “just” game menus.

First thing, Penny Arcade’s Tycho (as it happens) reports his initial impressions (fourth paragraph), which are that it’s all over the place. No two games behave the same. (as an aside, it’s not every day you see Penny Arcade writing about usability.)

Second, Ars Technica has a very interesting article about how Harmonix apparently got it right with their game Dance Central. How they did so will not be a surprise to any of us Mac/iPhone nerds: they prototyped, and iterated, and  prototyped, and iterated, and  prototyped, and iterated, and…

While every console or computer game, or at least every game genre, has for obvious reasons its own user interaction rules when playing the game itself, on the other hand you generally expect the rules for menus to be consistent from game to game, including across platforms; game menus even share some conventions with desktop software. But the Kinect is a fundamentally new user input mechanism, for which there is practically no reference (when your best reference is Minority Report, you know you have a lot of work ahead of you). It’s not every day, or even every year, but on average around every decade that you see such a fundamentally new user input mechanism for electronic devices come up; for all time, I count only seven: “buttons, sliders and dials”, keyboard, mouse, gamepad, touchscreen (which only started realizing its potential with multitouch), Wiimote, and Kinect. I’m not counting steering wheels, joysticks and light guns, as these are used on electronic devices only to provide a simulation of the “real” ones, neither do I count remotes, which are just  “buttons, sliders and dials” that operate remotely.

So with such a new, unexplored user interaction continent, you’ve got to wonder why Microsoft didn’t do the job they should have done as the platform owner, by which I mean doing the research Harmonix had to do themselves, sharing the results with the developers of Kinect games, and applying the lessons to their own titles to set the example. If there’s something they should have taken from Apple’s and Nintendo’s playbook, it’s this. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised given how much Microsoft application themselves are the worst violators of what little user interface guidelines Windows has, but at the same time, isn’t the Xbox from a completely different part of Microsoft?

At any rate, it will be very interesting to see how this will develop in the future.